Was Carly Fiorina real debate winner?

The lone female GOP candidate had been relegated to the early debate – but that may have worked to her advantage.

John Minchillo/AP
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina participates a pre-debate forum at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday in Cleveland. Seven of the candidates have not qualified for the primetime debate.

The GOP presidential hopeful who benefited most from yesterday’s debates might be ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

To this early point in the race Ms. Fiorina has had a tough run. She’s impressed audiences at town halls, dinners, and other small gatherings across the early voting states, but that hasn’t translated into actual support. According to the RealClearPolitics rolling average, right now she’s tied for 13th with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal with a mere 1.3 percent of the Republican primary vote.

But that might have worked to her advantage. Relegated to the early debate, the undercard, by Fox News on Aug. 6, Fiorina shone. This might have been easy given that the other contenders seemed a bit dispirited, as if they were disappointed to be on the JV. Plus, the former business executive did not have to share a stage with uncontrollable force Donald Trump.

“It was actually really good for Fiorina to be in the first debate,” tweeted Vox publisher Ezra Klein yesterday. “She won a debate tonight, as opposed to being lost in the bigger debate.”

That’s reflected in search engine metrics. Compare Fiorina’s name in Google Trends with the consensus top three in the GOP race, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, and over the last day Fiorina easily outpoints them all. There’s more search interest in her by about a two-to-one margin.

OK, Mr. Trump easily outpoints her. But is that really going to last?

In her early evening appearance yesterday Fiorina’s answers were sharp and articulate. They flowed out like words from a practiced debater who's prepared for the questions. Asked why she was lagging behind, she pointed out that at this point in their races Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama looked like losers, too.

Asked the inevitable Trump question, she launched a multiple warhead answer that hit both Trump and her main target, likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton?” said Fiorina, referring to reports that the former president had urged Trump to run.

“Maybe it’s because I hadn’t given money to the foundation or donated to his wife’s Senate campaign,” Fiorina continued.

But it was her sound-bite finale that most stirred the crowd. She’s framed her campaign around being the anti-Clinton. It’s not just that she’s the only woman in the GOP field, though that’s part of it. It’s that she’s the only hopeful tough enough to take it to the skilled Clinton infighters, in her telling.

“Hillary Clinton lies about Benghazi, she lies about e-mails. She is still defending Planned Parenthood, and she is still her party’s frontrunner,” Fiorina said. “2016 is going to be a fight between conservatism, and a Democrat party that is undermining the very character of this nation. We need a nominee who is going to throw every punch, not pull punches, and someone who cannot stumble before he even gets into the ring.”

Could Fiorina pick up the angry vote that powers Trump after his inevitable flame-out? That’s possible. She’s portraying herself as the fighter for which the GOP base yearns.

“In general, Republican votes like their candidates to focus on defeating Clinton – as opposed to, say, bickering with each other. Fiorina taps into that vein more effectively than anyone else,” writes Byron York, the sharp political columnist of the Washington Examiner, in a positive piece on Fiorina’s progress.

Whether she could actually win the Oval Office is another matter. Fiorina might be a classic boom candidate: Someone who rises quickly, inspires intense media scrutiny, and then loses support in the glare.

As David Harsanyi points out at The Federalist, she’s not particularly electable. Her previous policy positions haven’t been particularly conservative. As a CEO, she laid off 30,000 US workers – a fact that would make it into every other line of a Clinton speech in the general election. It’s an open question whether Fiorina was an effective business leader, in any case. She was forced out, and the company continues to struggle.

“I think Fiorina makes a pretty persuasive case that she did an admirable job at HP, but she has a lot of history to answer for. Probably too much,” writes Mr. Harsanyi.

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